Early Atmosphere & Fossils

13 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


SWBAT describe Earth's early atmosphere and identify how primitive organisms influenced Earth's early atmosphere | SWBAT define fossils as remnants of living organisms and differentiate between eon, era, period, and epoch

Big Idea

Students explore the early atmosphere and how organisms contributed oxygen via photosynthesis. They also watch a video and do some textual analysis about fossils as remains of living organisms from the past

Lesson Introduction

In this lesson, for probably the first time ever, students get to think about how the oceans and early atmosphere formed on Earth's surface. The lesson starts out with some predictions, and then a brief video illustrates the process of atmospheric and oceanic formation. They then, as I'm trying my best to get them engage scientific texts via the NGSS Standards and Common Core. We then use our Earth Science Reference Tables [ESRT] to examine fossils and geologic time periods. 

[Note: For embedded comments, checks for understanding (CFUs), and key additional information on transitions and key parts of the lesson not necessarily included in the below narrative, please go to the comments in the following document: Early Atmosphere & Fossils (Whole Lesson w/comments). Additionally, if you would like all of the resources together in a PDF document, that can be accessed as a complete resource here: Early Atmosphere & Fossils (Whole Lesson)[PDF]. Finally, students may need their Earth Science Reference Tables [ESRT] for parts of the lesson (a document used widely in the New York State Earth Science Regents course) as well.]

Do Now

10 minutes

Students come in silently and complete the (attached) Do Now. This Do Now specifically has questions (particularly a challenging #3) which deal with superposition and geologic dating, something I try to reinforce effusively throughout the unit. After time expires (anywhere from 2-4 minutes depending on the type of Do Now and number of questions), we collectively go over the responses (usually involving a series of cold calls and/or volunteers), before I call on a student and ask them to read the objective out loud to start the lesson.

As a general note, the Do Now serves a few purposes:

  1. It serves as a general review of the previous day's material;
  2. It is a re-activation of student knowledge to get them back into "student mode" and get them thinking about science after transitioning from another content area or alternate class;
  3. as a strategy for reviewing material students have struggled with (for example, using this as a focused review for material that they have struggled with on unit assessments or recent quizzes); and,
  4. It is an efficient and established routine for entering the classroom that is repeated each day with fidelity (I never let students enter the classroom talking. While it may seem potentially severe to have students enter silently each day, this is both a school wide expectation and a key component of my classroom. In many respects, I find that students readily enjoy the focus that starting with a quiet classrooms brings each day).

Video Introduction

10 minutes

Before jumping into the text, I have students start to think about what Earth's early atmosphere would have looked like. I take a few responses, and then we play the video (embedded above). Link is also here.

We watch the video in its entirety, which I think does a fairly good job of explaining the formation of the Earth and its early history. While it does have some information that isn't necessarily super relevant and tested via the Regents, I do feel that giving students at least an exposure to the entire picture of the Earth's past is in some ways interesting, but in other ways allows them to really think about the interconnectedness of astronomical, geological, and biological agents in creating the world we live in today. While they're watching the video, I ask them to fill out the two questions attached on the Video Introduction resource. 

Notes & Analysis

15 minutes

[Note: See the reflection in this section for additional rationale on the heavy use of text-based information in my lessons recently].

This section isn't necessarily intended to take a long time, but to cement much of the information that was (quickly) presented to them in the video. I have them read the text attached in the first two pages in the Notes & Analysis resource, and then answer the associated questions, citing their notes and the information contained in the video and text as evidence. After giving them 8-10 minutes to do that collectively (I circulate to make sure everyone is on task and answer any associated questions), we go over the information together, while students correct and modify their responses as necessary. 

Also, as a teaching note, I don't usually do this, but I also passed out highlighters to have students cite the specific places where they were able to find the information. When we went over the responses, in addition to having the students actually answer the question, I had them tell me where they found the information in the text. Again, note the reflection for some rationale here. 

Fossils & Practice

25 minutes

The next section of the lesson also proceeds quickly, in that I find that once students get the hang of utilizing their Earth Science Reference Tables [ESRT] as a resource, they can figure out  the information they need to answer the questions posed to them. Here's a video explaining a bit more about that:


I approach teaching this via the more traditional "I do, We do, You do" format. I go to Page 8-9 in their Earth Science Reference Tables [ESRT] and then do a quick think aloud/model where I explain some of the images. I first focus on the "Geologic Eras" portion on the left side of the image, noting the actual quantitative numbers and dates, with particular attention to the alternating bands of white/black lines that roughly correlate to millions of years, and the specific information under the ERA column. I then go into the Period and Epoch sections, again focusing on the specific quantitative information in the years in between the Epoch and Life on Earth columns, as much of the Regents-based questions (seen in the attached Fossils & Practice) ask students to give specific, numeric answers relating to fossil presence in the geologic record. I then do the first 1-2 problems in the Fossils & Practice resource, gradually giving more of the work to the students after that. I sometimes do, if I feel a student can explain it, a "Show Call," where I ask a student to actually come up to the document camera/ELMO at the front of my room and explain the answer to a problem using their Reference Table. I then ask them to work together on working through the remaining problems, and if there's time, or if I feel that they're generally successful, we transition into more independent-based work. 

Exit Ticket & Closing

5 minutes
  1. In the last few minutes of class, I have students complete the daily Exit Ticket. For the sake of time, I have students grade them communally, with a key emphasis on particular questions and items that hit on the key ideas of the lesson (Note: This usually manifests as students self-grading, or having students do a "trade and grade" with their table partners). After students grade their exit tickets, they usually pass them in (so that I can analyze them) and track their exit ticket scores on a unit Exit Ticket Tracker.  

    After students take a few seconds to track their scores, we usually wrap up in a similar way. I give students time to pack up their belongings, and I end the class at the objective, which is posted on the whiteboard, and ask students two questions:

    1. Do you feel that you mastered the objective for the day?
    2. Can you reiterate one thing you learned about ____________ (in this case, something like identifying components of the early atmosphere, or using their ESRT to identify how eons and eras are sequenced, etc.)